The table was shrouded in white linen, and the slice of chocolate cake came on a bone china saucer. A few minutes later, just as the pianist switched from Schubert to Haydn, an effete, penguin-suited waiter presented the sparkling riesling with a bow. Next to me sat a woman in a fur coat; at her feet was a poodle. It was 11AM in February, and I could think of a no less appropriate place to be than Austria, and no stranger activity to engage in than the solitary consumption of Viennese pastry and wine.
There wasn’t snow on the ground, but everything else was white — the palaces, the ponies, the pedestrians. It was ball season, and in the velvet-lined windows of jewellery stores sat tiaras, twinkling without irony. If Austria is best-known for schmaltzy sentimentalism and a refusal to acknowledge its Nazi heritage, the capital city of Vienna is celebrated for its Habsburg-era decadence. The city looks and feels like a monument to itself.
It seemed odd to indulge in cultural nostalgia for a city whose main asset is undeniably its imperial past. Odd or not, here I was. Eating cake. And since it was Vienna, many of the cakes were based on recipes originally devised for various members of the royal family. There was chocolate and apricot Sachertorte, shocking pink punschkrapferl filled with nougat, kardinalschnitte made from génoise sponge and meringue. There was apfelstrudel mit schlag and round waffles topped with extruded worms of maroni cream. Liquor and buttercream Esterházy torte was on offer, as was rehrücken, a dome spiced with ginger and decorated to look explicitly like a ‘‘slab of venison’’. Marzipan made frequent appearances in my selections and so did poppy seeds, pistachios and glacé cherries.
The Viennese coffee shops where such desserts get eaten seem to line almost every street in the city. Unesco even designates Viennese cafe culture as an ‘‘intangible cultural heritage’’ of Austria, noting the ubiquity of marble tabletops and Thonet bentwood chairs. ‘‘Time and space are consumed’’, according to the official listing, ‘‘but only coffee is found on the bill’’. Quiet and dim, these coffee shops function for their visitors like satellite living rooms: vaulted ceilings, balding upholstery, parquet floors. Dozens of newspapers are provided, free of charge, each with its own little wooden spine. Dogs are allowed inside, and one can order a single cup of coffee and stay, guiltlessly, all day. The service can feel almost hostile in its deliberate inefficiency. In ‘‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’’, Thomas Bernhardt rants (as usual) about how despite ‘‘detesting’’ Viennese coffeehouses he finds himself ‘‘compelled to frequent them’’. He hates them for the way in which they court people just like himself, but even so, he writes, ‘‘I am still more at home in my Viennese coffeehouses than I am in my own house.’’
The oldest and grandest coffee shops are cultural institutions, beloved for their dark wood interiors, proprietary recipes and the famous, long-dead patrons who loved them. Demel, for instance, a Hofburg-adjacent establishment founded in 1786, kept its title of ‘‘imperial and royal court confectionery bakery’’ even after the monarchy collapsed. According to its own legend, it supplied Empress Elisabeth — better known as Sisi — with candied violets, which she ate atop sorbet. ‘‘Receipts from various pastry shops show that Elisabeth was extremely fond of confectionery and ice cream,’’ reports an audio guide in the Hofburg palace — an at- tempt to dispel the historical consensus that she was in fact severely anorexic. Café Landtmann, meanwhile, with its glassed-in atrium and views of both the city hall and the main theatre, was frequented by the likes of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, a fact which they relish and advertise.
I started my trip with earnest attempts to protract the present. I denied impatience and ate slowly, cutting thin slices of cake with the edge of my fork to preserve the layers. In the beginning, I requested coffee along- side every pastry, dutifully draining each cup and clean- ing every plate. But as my daily injections of sugar progressed, I switched from caffeine to alcohol diluted with elderflower water and abandoned the self-imposed obligation to finish my so-called meals.
Visiting Vienna — sometimes referred to as a ‘‘head without a body’’ due to its expired imperialism — is amusing for the same reasons it is absurd. The city’s sugary spires and golden filigree look at once better and worse for their current day insignificance. The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell a century ago next year, but the physical remains of its influence are perfectly pre- served. The discrepancy can feel haunting at moments, even sinister, but then you turn from a quiet cobblestone street onto a Baroque boulevard and catch a cowing view that has the same effect today that it was meant to have centuries ago. And the desserts are similar: Devised in some instances hundreds of years ago and presented with self-conscious pride, they are outwardly beautiful, sickly sweet, ultimately oppressive, yet al- ways, in the end, impossible to refuse.
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